Building spaces of communication


The modernization of transport and its contradictions

Transport routes and the transformation of rural livelihoods

Building spaces of communication

Concepts of space on the move

Movements and communications in academic inquiry

Conclusion: Insights gained through the Symposium

The third set of questions addressed during the Symposium referred to how transport and communication had, in the course of history, structured their own spaces and boundaries. It was also asked how these structuring processes were affected by competing forms of space, and whether or in what manner they had constituted their own barriers and obstacles.

These questions were tackled on a variety of scales, both geographical and historical. The circulation of different kinds of knowledge was in the forefront here in combination with different means of transmission.

Africa from east to west

Jan Vansina, whose paper was circulated in absentia, undoubtedly provided the most wide-ranging contribution. He examined changing corridors of communication constituted by lively traffic in productive knowledge between the east and the west of the Southern African sub-continent from AD 1 to about 1700, i.e., prior to Atlantic long-distance trade and long before Europeans had attempted to "explore" this route. In his paper entitled "Communication between Angola and East Central Africa before c. 1700", Vansina looks at routes of innovation transmission, such as sheep and cattle herding, cereal agriculture, the cultivation of minor crops, and chicken-rearing, which had an enormous impact on livelihoods in Angola and its hinterlands in the long run. Originating from beyond the Indian Ocean and carried forward by long-term processes of migration and exchange, these innovations passed from East into West Central Africa along three well-defined routes of entry. Vansina reconstructs the gradual shift of these routes from the south (Okavango) to the north (beyond the Lubilash River). He argues that, contrary to established assumptions, the Kalahari Sands around the Upper Zambezi formed an effective barrier to direct communication between East Africa and Angola, thereby enforcing the circumvention of this route until about 1700.

Between the coast and the interior

Several contributions then moved on to the West African side of the continent. This side, i.e., the Angolan coast and its West Central African hinterland, was turned into a single interconnected space of communication by the trading caravans that frequented it in growing numbers, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. In Session 5 ("Building Spaces of Communication"), Beatrix Heintze looked at how this space was constructed, not just by these movements as such, but by the circulation (and non-circulation) of information that accompanied and regulated them. The communication of knowledge along caravan routes was often oral but, as Ana Paula Tavares' contribution in the same session pointed out, had also used the written form from an early date. One facet of the early adoption of writing, even among African leaders in the remote hinterland, and the attendant bureaucratic language, is investigated by Catarina Madeira Santos' paper, which was also circulated in absentia.

Setting the frame for this group of papers, Beatrix Heintze examined the role of long-distance trade caravans in West Central Africa in the 19th century as carriers of information that connected small-scale ("local") with more encompassing spaces of communication. The creation of these information networks was of considerable political and economic significance for the shaping of West Central Africa in the 19th century. The exchange carried on by trade caravans comprised not only trade goods, skills and knowledge but also information, news and rumours. "News and information regarding what had previously been unknown now travelled much more quickly, were available in more detailed form and were transmitted across cultural boundaries." Both travellers as well as African authorities adapted quickly to the possibilities and challenges of these developments, developing schemes to assess the truth content of such information and adopting the relevant defensive measures, such as strategically 'planting' false reports, distributing horror stories, and creating real or fictitious political and commercial relationships with foreigners via marriage or oral tradition. Heintze also emphasized the flexible and changing nature of the information and communication networks created by the caravans. They were not static but subject to change, such as when caravan routes were abandoned or moved elsewhere.

Addressing the same space and time period, the Angolan historian and poet Ana Paula Tavares explored a specific but highly significant method of transmitting knowledge along the above-mentioned caravan route network. She talked about the role of writing in fixating knowledge in political and academic discourse knowledge that would otherwise have been orally transmitted and subject to historical context and constant change. Tavares focused on the changing ideas that emanated on the Angolan coast about the Lunda Empire in the remote interior and vice versa. This kind of knowledge largely constituted itself in a mutual and essentially oral process of message, expansion, receipt, decodation and reply, which passed over long distances and along paths that were in part but not necessarily identical with the routes of trade. From time to time, however, these ideas were recorded in writing, not only by Europeans (slave traders, missionaries, administrative employees, travelling researchers or modern scientists), but also by African kings and chiefs, some of whom were far removed from any European presence. The letters and documents of the latter form an invaluable body of historical sources, some of which date back to the 18th century and have only recently been recovered.

Catarina Madeira Santos, in her paper on "Writing Power", examined official certificates used by the Portuguese authorities to acknowledge their African allies as particular contributors to the spread of literacy among African elites in Angola. Concentrating on the case of the Ndembu in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, she regarded these documents as a means of communication that likewise transmitted a form of bureaucratic language, which served as a medium to negotiate power relations along the routes of the Angolan hinterland.

The discussion on these contributions emphasized the distinction between public and private information. Since the Enlightenment in western societies, knowledge has come to be valued primarily for its reliability. Rumour, in contrast, is treated as inferior because it circulates privately and is unreliable. However, in pre-modern views, rumour was the main source of knowledge, the crucial aspect of which was not general access to the "truth" but the fact that someone had specific knowledge that he or she could pass on (or retain). This brings in the magical property of knowledge. In these contexts, communicative strategies are more important than the accumulation of encyclopaedic knowledge.

The south Atlantic

A broad spatial focus was once again chosen in the approach to the other end of the world of early modern Atlantic trade, in the form of three contributions that reviewed the connections between Angola and the South Atlantic. In Session 7 ("Communicating across the Atlantic"), John K. Thornton and Linda Heywood pursued individual paths of cultural mobility (notably the communication of memory and identity) in what has been called the Black Atlantic, between Angola and the Americas (notably Brazil), during the age of the slave trade. In Session 4 ("Transport and Violence under Foreign Impact"), José Curto concentrated on a shorter period and on a particular social "mover" of those transatlantic connections, namely the presence of a substantial Brazilian trading community in Southern Angola in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In addition, this topic provided a particularly striking example of the reciprocity of communication across the Atlantic Ocean.

Linda Heywood's paper "Memory through Space and Time" took off with the fact that popular memories and the remembrance practices of the famous Angolan Queen Njinga (1582-1663) can be observed on both the African and the Brazilian side of the Atlantic. In comparing these remembrances, her interest concentrated mainly on the following questions: When did the oral traditions surrounding Queen Njinga first appear in Angola? Where do they have their origin and why and under what conditions did Afro-Brazilians preserve that memory. Contrary to other claims, for Heywood there is no doubt that the Mbundu in Angola held on to traditions and elements of mythical memories of their queen until recently, probably with her grave as the focus. Today, Njinga is honoured as a national symbol of resistance against Portuguese domination. It can be assumed that memories of Queen Njinga entered Brazil with the Angolan slaves via the brotherhoods closely associated with them. Thus, they became part of the Congadas, the 18th century folk celebrations with historical and religious themes, the songs of which were later recorded in the 20th century.

In the discussion on the paper, it was added that the memory of Queen Njinga wandered to popular culture in Brazil, but also to European scientific circles, where she appeared, for example, in encyclopaedias, often in association with the 'Jagas'.

John K. Thornton's presentation "The Transportation of African Christianity to America: the 18th Century", began with an argument against claims that Kongo Christianity was superficial. He emphasized that the kingdom of Kongo developed a strong Christian identity during the 16th century and maintained it for a long period of time. This identity was taken to America by Kongo slaves and used to build a neo-Kongo community there. In subsequent centuries, however, the character of neo-Kongo identity changed: "While they were still in touch with Kongo through their own living memories, they shaped it to fit the model of their homeland, but as they and their children accepted it as an identity rather than a living cultural memory, they reshaped it increasingly to fit the creole environment of the Americas. As they did so, it gradually lost its distinctively Kongolese nature, and its specific history." At the same time, however, the syncretic form of this early African Christianity may have provided a key link between African and European forms of religiosity, meeting in the Americas.

Both these papers emphasized a continuity of memory that helped to construct a single communicative space across the Atlantic. In the discussion, it was pointed out that this emphasis, current among actors themselves, should definitely be seen as politically loaded.

Like Thornton, José Curto focused on the 18th century in his presentation "Movers of Slaves: The Brazilian Community in Benguela, c. 1730-1830", as well as on the early importance of Benguela, already mentioned in Roquinaldo Ferreira's contribution. Curto's point, however, was the role of a particular group of carriers of transoceanic communication that has hitherto found little attention. Between 1784 and 1819, 75 percent of all slaves from Benguela were shipped straight to Rio de Janeiro, a route that was operated to a considerable extent by Brazilian enterprises. The Brazilian community of Benguela, with an average of about 80, was quite heterogeneous in itself. According to contemporary census data, by the end of the 18th century, it included not only white and mestiço employees but also roughly a third of the black workers at Brazilian trading and shipping houses. They moved back and forth between Brazil and Africa, and regardless of their status, travelling widely on their own in the African interior, buying slaves and other trade goods. "The back-to-Africa movement of free and enslaved took place much earlier than presumed", the author emphasized. The descendents of these Brazilians remained in Benguela even after the 1850s, when the legal slave trade had come to an end and the specific identity of the group was lost.

The question of a "Benguelan" identity among Afro-Brazilians aroused considerable debate during the discussion of this paper. Part of the problem lies in the scarcity of written sources for this group and period. On the other hand, it is a question of mobility, as the members of this community, although of African origin, came from a variety of different areas and continued to be constantly on the move. Their connections and communications enabled them to form a kind of Internet across the South Atlantic.

Region, nation and the globe

Although Aurora da Fonseca Ferreira's paper was presented in Session 5 (see above), by shifting the focus of inquiry to the national space of modern Angola, it also provided a bridge to the first two papers of Session 8 ("Angola, Central Africa and the World"). The papers by Aurora Ferreira and Lukonde Luansi both adopted a long-term perspective and asked about the implications of Angola's heritage of regional difference and fragmented communication for the task of national integration, which is again at the top of the agenda today. In Manfred Schmitz' subsequent analysis of inequality in media-based communication, in contrast, the nation state was regarded as a whole and against the backdrop of global society.

In her paper on "Tráfego comercial e redes de comunicação, factores privilegiados de 'modernidade'", Aurora da Fonseca Ferreira focused on a micro-region (Kisama), using it to examine the flows, or rather the obstacles to goods and communication between a particular locality and what gradually became the national territory of Angola and its centres. Kisama is an area that successfully defended itself against direct Portuguese interference for centuries and was able to retain its autonomy until 1918, despite its proximity to the colonial centre of Luanda. Nevertheless, Kisama had a privileged position compared to the rest of Angola due to its remoteness from the large kingdoms and the Atlantic slave trade routes. In addition, the loss in significance of its former salt-mines to the conqueror, and its recent gazetting, first as a game reserve and then as a national park, helped to safeguard Kisama's unusual autonomy. Although communication and trade, both here and elsewhere, was strongly centred around Luanda, the links were mostly indirect. The passing of information through several intermediate agents and stations resulted in a marked selectivity of communication and, consequently, in a limitation of options for actors within the region. At the end of the colonial period, which had severed the ties between the Kisama territory and the outside world, electronic media now offered new opportunities for direct communication. For technical and other reasons, however, the building of modern communication networks is still largely limited to the urban centres, and neither is it a priority for national governments to create the conditions for a communicative infrastructure in the territory of Kisama National Park. While tarmac roads and energy supply lines are still missing, hopes are now set on satellite transmission. Functioning communication with the outside world is, at any rate, a precondition for any form of development (schools!) and "modernization".

Ferreira's question on the integration of the local and the national was later addressed from a broader perspective by Lukonde Luansi. In his contribution "Angola: movimentos migratórios e Estados precoloniais identidade e autonomia regional", he asked about the implications of a heritage of regional autonomies and constant mobility in the Angolan past for the current quest for a new, less centralist set-up of the Angolan nation state on the problems of Angolan national identity and regional autonomy. The turbulent decades of anti-colonial and civil war, accompanied by new major population movements exacerbated the crisis of the Angolan nation state, the foundations of which were laid in the colonial past. Luansi therefore explored Angola's pre-colonial history for socio-cultural and political forms of cohesion. Regionalization models in the given context of multiple connections between the regions, he argued, would help to overcome today's crisis.

In his contribution, Manfred Schmitz pointed out the marginal position of Angola as a whole in the context of what he called the global media society of today. His argument that information flows at the intra-national and transnational levels are far from being equal and balanced was based on an analysis of the mechanisms of hegemony by western media agencies operating on a global scale. Adopting the theory of "peripheral communication" developed in political science, Schmitz argued that the "corridors of communication" between Angola and the world, as established by the western media business, represent "paths of power" through which these enterprises spread and impose western ways and views on media-dependent countries such as Angola.

The discussion of the last two papers showed the need for in-depth research on the making of Angolan nationality from a long-term perspective, with due consideration of current debates about changing constructions of ethnic diversity and "traditional culture" in history, and of the complexity of global/local relationships. Besides official descriptions and established interests, the potential of alternative concepts, different voices and new forms of communication that could influence the flows of information and provide a basis for a democratic development of state and society in Angola should be considered, as well.

Manfred Schmitz, Ana Paula Tavares and Lukande Luansi
Manfred Schmitz, Ana Paula Tavares and Lukande Luansi
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Latest revision: 13.04.2004